Campus Carry Pushback Heats Up

More than 800 UT professors oppose guns on campus


UT professor Steven Friesen (Photo courtesy of Steven Friesen)

Texas Senate Bill 11 will allow licensed concealed handguns to be carried in public university campus buildings, beginning August 1, 2016. On the first day of classes, students and others at the University of Texas at Austin will be wielding dildos in opposition to campus carry. In addition to the now-viral protest, many students, faculty, and staff are utilizing more conventional approaches in their pushback.

As of October 24, according to the professor-led Gun Free UT, more than 800 UT professors have signed a petition opposing campus carry, along with over 1,000 UT grad students. About 18 departments at UT have also issued statements in opposition to the bill. A general petition opposing the bill has nearly 8,000 signatures.

While the professors publicly opposing campus carry make up around a fourth of UT's entire faculty, the number is likely an underrepresentation. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, the Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at UT, told the Chronicle, "Most individuals who have not signed these documents tend to be non-tenured faculty. They are the weakest, the most vulnerable. People are afraid." Other professors echoed Cañizares-Esguerra's take.

While "there's always a range of opinions," Steve Friesen, the Louise Farmer Boyer Chair in Biblical Studies, said, "The people who know what university campuses are like, are overwhelmingly against this." For example, university Chancellor William McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, has consistently spoken out against the bill. Also in opposition, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has argued that more guns will not only raise the likelihood of direct potential harm, but also likely cause confusion and firearms-related calls; even if false alarms, the calls can create fear among the public while wasting valuable police time.

While the university community seems to be strongly unified in its opposition to the bill, some tenured professors, who don't face the same pressures as non-tenured faculty, refuse to publicly address the controversy. "There's the issue of bullying. I've been harassed. I've been insulted," Cañizares-Esguerra said. "I've been contacted by many faculty, countless faculty, who fear to engage in the debate because they fear to be lynched by the anonymous mob."

On the other hand, Tina Maldonado, with the Applied Research Laboratories, is one of the few UT staff members that publicly support campus carry. The CHL instructor said the reason there aren't as many vocal supporters is because the bill is already on track to become law. "Having a CHL is a responsibility and private thing, and many people don't want their peers to know they are the ones that will be carrying," she said. "You are hearing that opposition because the faculty are not used to being told they can't have their way, and UT doesn't really have much of a choice in the matter."

Despite the backlash, Cañizares-Esguerra wrote in an open letter denouncing campus carry, "It is our moral obligation at this moment in the history of our nation to educate [people on the problems of concealed carry]." In his interview with the Chronicle, he slammed the media for its "profoundly misleading" false equivalence on the issue of guns, saying that, similar to the "debate" over climate change, there's "overwhelming evidence" that guns, by and large, do not make us safer. Unless professors "counter the propaganda that passes as knowledge" regarding concealed carry, Cañizares-Esguerra asked, "What differentiates our fear to speak from Galileo's before the Inquisition?"

Beyond their concerns about the direct risks of guns – the possibility of murder, injury, accident, and suicide – professors worry that campus carry will endanger UT's learning environment – not only limiting dialogue within the classroom, but also potentially discouraging top scholars from working with the university. Noting colleagues and students who have considered leaving the university in response to the bill, Martha Newman, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, said, "It's already started to create a climate of fear." Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor emeritus, decided this summer to withdraw from UT to teach at the University of Sydney, doing so, he wrote, "out of self-protection."

"The nature of higher education requires the exchange of disagreements, a consideration of topics that are sometimes disturbing, that sometimes cut very deeply in terms of people's identities and their commitments," Friesen said. "Having the presence of guns in that kind of situation, I think will make it more difficult to have the learning that we need to have, the kind of discussions that we need to have. It will change the character of higher education."

Notably, it's already legal to carry a concealed handgun on the campus outdoors and nearby areas like the Drag. As Cañizares-Esguerra said, "Stop calling this 'campus carry.' We already have 'campus carry.' We have to call this law what it is – it's called 'classroom carry' and 'dorm carry' and 'office carry.'"

Cañizares-Esguerra stressed that he doesn't want to demonize CHL holders and supporters of the bill. "I personally share the fear of 99 percent of concealed carriers. I can see the logic of their argument. I do not think that they are nuts. They are my peers. They are my neighbors. They are my friends, even," he said, suggesting that the problem is the propaganda of organizations like the National Rifle Association. UT government professor Bryan Jones opposes allowing guns in his workplace, but is far from anti-gun – the former NRA member has two rifles and a handgun at his home.

Newman worries that the conversation on this issue so often devolves into a shouting match, limiting rational debate. Acknowledging that the bill will make campus carry supporters think they are safer, Newman explains that the bill makes the majority of the community feel less safe, which "creates exactly the kind of fear that the supporters of this bill think guns will alleviate."

In Texas, the eighth state to allow campus carry on public university campuses, concealed handgun license-holders must be over the age of 21, meaning that most undergrad students won't qualify. According to The Dallas Morning News, "UT-Austin estimates that less than 1 percent of its students have a license."

But that doesn't include the nearly 12,000 graduate students and thousands of faculty and staff members who could potentially carry guns. Of course, most likely are not CHL holders, but some professors worry about the possibility of armed faculty, staff, and grad students, some of whom may feel the need to arm themselves in their own defense. For example, Newman noted that one student, who grew up using guns, told her that if campus carry does go into place, he would feel compelled to get a CHL for himself.

There's also concern over visitors potentially bringing weapons into campus buildings. About 850,000 Texans are permit-holders, and, because of reciprocity agreements with 39 states, CHL holders from other states (like Alabama, where 18-year-olds can get a license) could carry in UT buildings as well.

The bill does allow public university presidents to establish "reasonable" gun-free zones, as long as guns aren't "generally" prohibited – but what exactly qualifies as "reasonable" is still being debated, and the eventual decision will almost certainly be controversial. The administration, Cañizares-Esguerra notes, is between a rock and hard place: "They run the risk of alienating the Legislature if they determine that 'reasonable' means no guns in classrooms, dorms, and offices. If they implement policies that bring guns into dorms and classrooms and festoon campus with gun lockers and signs to carve out gun-free areas, they run the risk of alienating the university community."

Multiple professors are currently exploring potential legal challenges to the bill, possibly on the basis of violated First Amendment rights, but details aren't clear at this point.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Steve Friesen, Art Acevedo , William McRaven, Martha Newman, Senate Bill 11, Gun Free UT, Bryan Jones, National Rifle Association, campus carry, University of Texas at Austin, Senate Bill 11, Gun Free UT

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